Yule - Calendar of Revelry and Sacred Days

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Calendar of Revelry and Sacred Days

The ancient Germanic calendar was divided into six periods of 60 days each, known as tides. Each tide was the equivalent of two modern months. Yuletide refers to the two-month tide corresponding to modern December and January. The winter solstice falls within this period, as does the 12-day period commemorated as the Twelve Days of Christmas. Similar to Halloween or the February Feasts of Purification, the veil between realms is thin during this time and ghosts and spirits walk the land.

Yule may be defined either of several ways:

Image as the Nordic pagan festival that once began at the Winter Solstice

Image as an alternative name for Christmas; those who use that name tend to emphasize pagan survivals within Christmas, however not necessarily to the exclusion of Christian elements. This Yule begins on the evening of December 24th, regardless of the specific timing of the Solstice.

Image as the modern Wiccan sabbat that corresponds to the Winter Solstice

The word “Yule” may derive from the name of a Nordic festival. Juleiss was the name of the Gothic month of celebrations and fun. In Dutch, “joelen”means loud, fun, raucous partying. (My Dutch source suggests that joelen is what the crowd does during a football match!) Yule may also derive from the Anglo-Saxon word for “wheel,” commemorating the cutting and rolling of the Yule log.

Christmas is permeated with Pagan traditions. The period of time beginning with the Winter Solstice and continuing for at least the next twelve days was a popular time for festivals in the pre-Christian world. Many traditions and rituals have since been absorbed into the Christian celebrations.

These December festivals included:

Image The Nordic festival of Yule. Its elements included the yule log, the yule boar, and devotion to evergreen trees. Odin, the shaman god, sometimes resembles the jolly gift-giver alternately known as Santa Claus, Father Christmas or Old Saint Nick. Odin studied shamanism with the neighboring Saami and perhaps learned something about herding reindeer, too. Although Odin isn’t the elven king—that’s Freyr’s job—the elves and Odin do come from the same territory.

Image The Saturnalia and the Feast of Ops: the Roman festival in honor of Father Time, also known as Saturn, and his consort Ops. For the Romans, Saturn was king of an ancient “golden age” of perfect happiness, before people had to farm for a living. His festival looks back to that early age with nostalgia. The Saturnalia celebrated the solstice and sought to protect winter-sown crops, but above all the Saturnalia was a joyous, merry festival characterized by gift-giving, especially to children. The Saturnalia counts among the wild, anarchic festivals. There are rituals to encourage fertility. Gambling and gaming was encouraged; crossdressing was popular. Social distinctions were reversed, so for a few days a slave could be master. The ancient deity Saturn also bears something of a resemblance to that white-bearded old gentleman, Good Saint Nick.

Image The Rural or Lesser Dionysia: allegedly the most ancient of the Greek festivals honoring Dionysus. Held at the very beginning of January, on this day even slaves enjoyed freedom. A procession was held which included a goat bearing a basket filled with raisins. An erect wooden pole carved to resemble a phallus and decorated with ivy was carried in the procession too.

Image The Mothers’ Night: a Germanic midwinter festival associated with the Norse deity Odin. According to the monk, historian, and scholar the Venerable Bede (c. 672—May 25, 735 CE) the Mothers’ Night corresponded in time with Christmas Eve and was the most important pagan festival in eighth-century Britain. Little information about the holiday survives. Mothers were apparently honored as were perhaps the ancient European deities known as the Matronae or “The Mothers.” Divination was practiced at this time. Dreams on this night were believed to reveal the future.

In Russia, the season coinciding with Christmas was a time traditionally celebrated with crossdressing, dressing as animals, masking and mumming.

December is a time for dancing, singing, and feasting, a time when men masquerade as animals and especially as the Horned God. The Horned One carries a small broom of birch twigs with which to generate and enhance fertility power. His face is blackened with soot or charcoal dust so that he looks as if he’s come down the chimney. (It’s meant to emphasize his fertility and immortality, similar to the way ancient Egyptians painted Osiris black when they wished to emphasize his resurrection from the dead and the immortal life he had achieved.)

These wild defiant celebrations found their place within Christmas. To this day conservative evangelical Christians discourage pagan elements within the holiday, suggesting that followers “put the Christ back into Christmas.” Until fairly recently, Christmas, and particularly these pagan elements, was considered somewhat disreputable. It was once considered a wild and raucous holiday, which the defiant, anarchist forces of Earth attempted to dominate.

The New England Puritans refused to celebrate Christmas, for instance, while, in 1801, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives forbade masquerading at Yule. The punishment was to be no more than three months imprisonment and a fine between $50 and $1000, which was an incredibly large sum of money in those days. And in 1881, Philadelphia law banned Christmas Eve masquerading. (Not a problem; revelers simply moved their festivities to New Year’s Eve. Many customs now associated with New Year’s Eve were once identified with Christmas.)

Why? What were people doing?

Celebrations of the Horned One, excised from May Day, Midsummer’s and especially Halloween, survive at Christmas time. This is particularly apparent in the parts of Europe where Father Christmas has an official helper, like Black Pete or Krampus. Santa Claus himself may be the Horned One, albeit now in a padded suit. (See HORNED ONE: Krampus.) German immigrants to the United States formed a sizable community in the state of Pennsylvania. They brought their raucous Yule traditions with them.

In addition to Santa and his helpers, pagan elements of Yule include:

Image The Christmas Tree: this is a survival of ancient devotion to trees. An evergreen, symbol of eternal life, is decorated, honored, and feted. Whether the ancients would have approved of chopping down so many trees during this season is subject to debate.

Image The Yule Log: a log (or at least a large chunk of one) is decorated and burned on the Eve of the Solstice. To put this in context, one must recall that pagan goddesses, including Diana and Hera, were once worshipped in the form of a piece of log. The modern Yule log has powerful associations with Frigg, who is married to Odin. The Yule log is incorporated into fertility spells as well as in spells for protection. The ashes or charred bits of wood are preserved until the following Yule. The “buchenoelle” is a cake shaped to resemble a Yule log. The Yule log is often cut from a yew tree and some believe that the name “yule” derives from “yew.”

Image The Yule animal, the boar or male pig, commemorates the sacrificial boar offered to Freyr in winter. Whole roast pig is the traditional Yule feast in some regions. In Sweden, yuletide cakes are still baked in the shape of a boar. In Britain, pink hard candy pigs were once customarily presented following the Yule feast. Smashed with a hammer, the pig broke into bits so that there was a piece of the “sacrifice” for everyone at table.

Image Have we mentioned mistletoe? The golden bough is hung over thresholds with scarlet ribbons. According to tradition, should a couple of people find themselves simultaneously under the mistletoe, they must kiss. (Much maneuvering may be spent getting people underneath the mistletoe…)

Witches play their part during Yule time too.

Image The witch Befana gives children in Italy gifts on Christmas Day, much as Santa Claus or Father Christmas is the primary gift-giver elsewhere in the world. Befana flies on a broom or arrives riding a donkey.

Image The German witch Lutzelfrau prefers to receive gifts. In a Yuletide version of “trick or treat” Lutzelfrau flies through the air on her broom creating havoc in the homes that have neglected to honor her with small offerings.

Image In parts of Austria and Germany, children celebrate Christmas by going door-to-door wearing masks and costumes (frequently but not always conforming to the stereotype of ugly witches) and carrying brooms. They beg small treats in the name of the witch-goddess Perchta.

Image Various witch-goddesses including Perchta, Hulda, Herta, and Freya lead the Wild Hunt at this time of year, sometimes in conjunction with Odin (who may or may not be the male pagan deity who hides under the mask of Father Christmas).

See also DIVINE WITCH: Befana; Freya; Herta; Hulda; Odin; Perchta.